Keywords: Gender rolesidentityprivate spherepublic sphereVictorian society
1. Gender Roles in Victorian England
Gender as a social construct is concerned with the delineation of features which characterise
masculinity and femininity. As such, it refers to a set of beliefs and attitudes regarding the specific
features of the two genders, as well as their appropriate conduct and specific roles in society.
Victorian England, like other European countries - and to a certain extent, American society as well
- was based on the so-called
industrial revolution ideology according to which women were restricted to the narrow confines of the
domestic, private space, playing the roles of wives and mothers, characterised by submissiveness and
an inferior status – that of objects or commodities –, while men were allotted the public/social sphere,
associated with independence and mobility. Hence, the dichotomy between the characteristics
attributed to a man and a woman: active, independent, dominant, strong, coarse were traditional male
characteristics, whereas passive, submissive, weak, and fragile were features generally attributed to the
feminine gender. As Showalter points out, “[t]he middle-class ideology of the proper sphere of
womanhood, which developed in post-industrial England and America, prescribed a woman who
would be a Perfect Lady, an Angel in the House, contentedly submissive to men” (Showalter, 1977:
14). Moreover, these harsh rules of behaviour imposed women to be confined to the restrictive
domestic space. Any attempt for woman to enter the public space unaccompanied by a male
represented a disgrace and the woman who dared do that was looked down upon and excluded from
Society. As Harman (Harman, 1988: 373) notes down, in Victorian England “[p]ublic space is
promiscuous space…and entry into it is inevitably compromising.” As a result, “the general rule was
that any woman in a public place of leisure, and unaccompanied by husband or other suitable male, was
a prostitute” (Cunningham, 1980: 130).
departs from it, thus displaying an elusive nature many critics have tried to disentangle. While some
authors claim that the novel displays “the dominant male presence” through a paradox: “the
predominant presence of female absence throughout the text” (Brown, 1996: 3), others consider that
“[w]hat makes the novel unique is James's handling the gender roles. On one hand there are the
outstanding female characters challenging the fixed gender roles imposed by the Victorian period, and
on the other hand there are still women seen as 'objects'” (Kemaloğlu: 103). Indeed, the women
appearing in James’ novel could be divided into two main categories, if we are to take into account the
mobility-immobility continuum. On the one hand, there are ‘immobile’ women, restricted to the narrow
confines of the domestic sphere, who assume the passive role of “angels in the house” (Showalter:
1977: 14) bestowed upon them by the norms of a patriarchal society - Edith Keyes, the Misses
Molyneux. On the other hand, there are the ‘mobile’ women of the novel - Isabel Archer, Henrietta
Stackpole, Lydia Touchett and Mme Merle - who seem to travel even more than the male characters,
each of them having her own reasons for doing so: for Isabel travelling is a means of acquiring
knowledge and satisfying her curiosity about life; for Henrietta, Isabel’s best friend, and a successful
journalist, travelling is part of her job description; for Lydia Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, travelling is part of
her well-planned yearly schedule; for Mme Merle, travelling is a way of existence because she has no
real home and as such, she is a kind of itinerant guest. Since public space, movement and travel were
regarded in the Victorian epoch as attributes of masculinity, the frequent travels of Isabel Archer and of
the other three female characters mentioned above may be ‘read’ as an attempt to enter the masculine
public space, be accepted on equal terms with their male counterparts and thus reconstruct or redefine
their social identity and gender roles.
This article will focus on three of these female characters - Henrietta Stackpole, Mrs. Touchett and
Mme Merle – that accompany Isabel Archer in the travels that are meant to add a finishing touch to her
personal identity, with a view to discuss the way in which they challenge and/or adhere to the
patriarchal gender roles imposed by Victorian society in the process of being immersed into other
spaces and cultures.
2. Henrietta Stackpole: The ‘Defeminized’ Woman
Henrrietta’s conformity and/or challenge to the standard gender roles stipulated by the norms of
Victorian society will be analysed along three main dimensions: gender, professional and cultural
Henrietta Stackpole, Isabel’s best friend, is the only woman in the novel who has a lucrative
profession and assumes the traditional male role of a breadwinner - in her role as a newspaper
her widowed sister’s three children. Due to her profession, Henrietta enters the social sphere, thus
taking over some masculine characteristics and trespassing what was considered to be male territory:
she exchanges opinions about the social and political issues of the day, expressing her own ideas
(sometimes in a less tactful manner) out loud; in her discussions with male characters she tries to
acquire the dominant status; unlike other feminine characters, she can move freely to different locations
in America or Europe without being accompanied by a male person. Since Henrietta assumes many
features which were attributed in Victorian times to the masculine gender, there are characters in the
novel that regard her as “defeminized”. This state of affairs “stems not so much from the absence of
culturally desirable beauty as from her presence in the world of public, non-philanthropic employment”
(Brown, 1996: 34).
Introduced as an object-of-discourse in Chapter 6 – “Henrietta Stackpole had the advantage of an
admired ability; she was thoroughly launched into journalism and her letters (…) were universally
quoted” (James, 2011: 78) – Isabel’s friend appears on the scene only in Chapter 10 and is regarded
differently by various characters: thus, while Isabel looks at her as a model and as “a proof that a
woman might suffice to herself and be happy” (James, 2011: 79), male characters echo biased views
that stem from the displeasure caused by Henrietta’s intrusion on male territory: not only does
Henrietta have a job that permits her to be independent financially; her professional role allows and in
fact requires her to invade the privacy of other people. Thus, Ralph Touchett expresses stereotypical
male feelings with regards to Henrietta (albeit on a lighthearted tone) and calls her a ‘monster’, even
before meeting her: “As a man I’m bound to hate her. She must be a kind of monster.” (James, 2011:
115). Later in the book, Gilbert Osmond, Isabel’s husband, echoes the same analogy, this time imbued
with harsh irony and obvious dislike: “Miss Stackpole, however, is your most wonderful invention. She
strikes me as some kind of monster” (James, 2011: 604). In Osmond’s view, Henrietta appears
deprived not only of feminine, but also of human qualities. The metonymic use of the steel pen for
Henrietta’s profession – “You know I never have admitted that she’s a woman. Do you know what she
reminds me of? Of a new steel pen...” (James, 2011: 604) – symbolises Henrietta’s transformation into
a monster-woman, endowed with a sum of masculine qualities. Usually associated with masculine
sexuality, the ‘steel pen’ becomes in Henrietta’s hands a weapon which permits her to violate the other
characters’ private space. Even Isabel acknowledges her best friend’s intrusion in other people’s lives:
“My poor Henrietta (…) you’ve no sense of privacy” (James, 2011:120).
The profession of a journalist, adhered to in Victorian times mostly by men, offers Henrietta the
possibility of travelling unaccompanied by a male person, without being considered a fallen woman.
Moreover, she can take over the role of travel companion or guardian, generally restricted to the male
gender. Isabel, the heroine of the novel, is fully aware of this attribute when she says in a rather
haughty manner in a discussion with her cousin Ralph: “With Henrietta surely I may go anywhere: she
isn’t hampered in that way. She has travelled over the whole American continent and can at least find
her way about this minute island” (James, 2011: 168). On hearing about Henrietta’s exploits, Ralph
gladly gives up his role of travel guardian only to be guarded by Henrietta in a light-hearted and
somewhat ironic remark: “let me take advantage of her protection to go up to town as well. I may never
have a chance to travel so safely!” (James, 2011: 168). We witness here a shift in roles: Henrietta is to
take over the masculine attribute of guardianship, which involves power and dominant status, while
Ralph is to become the dependent partner, and thus acquires features specific for the feminine gender.
Male power is thus transferred onto Henrietta, while Ralph, by virtue of his illness and non-
involvement, takes over the feminine characteristics of feebleness and dependence. This shift in roles
and power distribution will become more evident towards the end of the novel, when Henrietta decides
to accompany Ralph from Italy to England and take care of him until the very end of his days. Her
proposal is readily accepted by Ralph: “I notify you then that I submit. Oh, I submit!” (James, 2011:
613). The verb ‘submit’ used by Ralph in reply to this proposal, as well as the awareness of “his having
abdicated all functions” (James, 2011: 613) when accepting to be accompanied, supervised and taken
care of by Henrietta underline the shift of power and his dependant, submissive, feeble state in relation
to Isabel’s friend. As such, Henrietta trespasses once again male territory, acquiring dominant status
and power in relation with a male figure.
Apart from her gender and socio-professional identity, we also need to discuss her national and
cultural identity. As an American journal correspondent, she travels a lot both in America and in
Europe and interacts with different kinds of people, of various nationalities and different cultural
backgrounds. It is worth analysing if and how her immersion in various cultures and encounters with
people coming from various parts of the world might produce changes in her cultural identity.
In a discussion with Lydia and Ralph Touchett, shortly after her appearance at Gardencourt,
Henrietta identifies herself through her gender and nationality: “I like to be treated as an American
lady” (James, 2011: 131). Throughout the novel, Henrietta’s national identity is of paramount
importance. She is an epitome of Americanism and the features that make up her personal identity –
directness, self-reliance, ambition, perseverance, professionalism - converge towards this idea. In
Isabel’s eyes, Henrietta is the symbol of the American democracy and of the vast American space: “I
like the great country stretching away beyond the rivers and across the prairies (…) A strong, fresh
odour seems to rise from it, and Henrietta – pardon my simile – has something of that odour in her
garments” (James, 2011: 127-128). While in Europe, Henrietta makes countless comparisons between
America and the old continent and voices stereotypical views, which always point out the superiority of
the American way of life.
Henrietta’s immersion in the European culture, her travels, as well as her numerous social
encounters will perform a change in her beliefs and attitudes: her stereotypical cultural knowledge
regarding European civilization and lifestyle is gradually replaced by cultural understanding. Thus, if at
first she scornfully calls Ralph a European and rebukes him for giving up his country - “Do you
consider it right to give up your country?” (James, 2011: 123) -, at the end of the novel she is willing to
leave America and relocate to London after her marriage to Mr. Bantling, an English gentleman. Isabel
perceives this change in her friend’s avowed principles and looks at it as a transformation in
Henrietta’s personal identity; while acknowledging the change, however, Henrietta considers it is a
result of her new social status, which adds a new dimension to her gender role: that of a wife: “I AM
changed; a woman has to change a good deal to marry” (James, 2011: 694).
3. Lydia Touchett: The Absent Mother and Wife
Lydia Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, the one responsible for putting the plot in action by relocating her
niece to Europe, is a strong-willed, cosmopolitan woman, an unusual mother and wife with a very clear
yearly schedule: she spends most of her year in Florence, several months in America, where she takes
care of her investments, a part of the year in London, and only a month per year at her husband’s
residence, Gardencourt. Situated at thousands of miles distance from the stereotype caring, submissive
wife image of the epoch, which she flouts in many respects, Lady Touchett has turned a potentially
unhappy marriage situation into an acceptable arrangement, by spending most of the year far from
Gardencourt, “virtually separated from her husband” (James, 2011: 42). Hence, the nickname ‘crazy
aunt Lydia’ bestowed on her by Isabel’s father, which reveals the general feeling that she deviates from
the well-established gender roles of the time. Since this ‘arrangement’ was Lydia Touchett’s idea and
her husband, Daniel Touchett, confined to a wheelchair, simply had to comply with it, we can discern
here a shift in gender roles and distribution of power – the woman is the strong, dominant, active
figure, while the husband, due to his health problems, accepts the role of the weak, fragile, passive
member of the relationship.
Isabel’s aunt also flouts the norms of Victorian society as far as her behaviour as a mother is
concerned. Like Henrietta, she is also defeminised, but in a different manner: if Henrietta is
defeminised as a result of her profession and her attribute of breadwinner, Lydia Touchett’s
defeminisation is performed though a denial of her roles of a wife and a mother. Due to her frequent
travels abroad, she hardly takes care of her husband and son. There is an interesting shift in gender
identities occurring between Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, which is also acknowledged by Ralph, their son.
Mr. Daniel Touchett, Ralph’s invalid and sedentary father appears to have more maternal qualities than
Lydia Touchett, the mother: “His father (…) was the more motherly; his mother, on the other hand,
was paternal, and even, according to the slang of the day, gubernatorial” (James, 2011: 60). Therefore,
Lydia Touchett’s frequent relocations and her partial neglect of family duties as stipulated by the male-
dominant culture of the time result in a denial of her role as a mother. In the course of the novel, Mrs.
Touchett makes an attempt to ‘redeem’ herself as a mother, by removing Isabel, her niece, from the
narrow, domestic sphere in Albany and taking her to Gardencourt. However, after bringing Isabel to
Europe, Mrs. Touchett refuses to play the role of a mother figure for her niece, considering somehow
that her mission has been accomplished. When Ralph repeatedly asks his mother what she plans to do
with Isabel, she rebukes him: “Do with her? You talk as if she were a yard of calico. I shall do
absolutely nothing with her, and she herself will do everything she chooses” (James, 2011: 68). Her
reluctance to become a surrogate mother for Isabel will pave the way for Mrs. Merle’s taking over of
Although she generally violates the gender roles and conduct rules imposed by the patriarchal
society of the time, Mrs. Touchett nevertheless abides by the rules which concern Isabel’s behaviour.
When Lord Warburton pays them a visit at Gardencourt, Lydia Touchett does not leave the room until
Isabel goes to bed because, as she says, “You can’t stay alone with the gentlemen. You’re not – you’re
not at your blest Albany, my dear” (James, 2011: 95-96).
4. Serena Merle: The ‘Perfect’ Lady
Serena Merle, a cosmopolitan American expatriate, is another travelling woman that appears in
Isabel first meets her in a suggestive
playing the piano – and tries to guess the nationality of the enigmatic guest, but she makes the wrong
assumption, thinking that the visitor might be French. The auctorial voice adds to the difficulty of
guessing who this lady might be “Isabel had taken her at first, as we have seen, for a Frenchwoman; but
extended observation might have ranked her as German – a German of high degree, perhaps an
Austrian, a baroness, a countess, a princess” (James, 2011: 226). Due to the many places she has
visited as a result of her frequent relocations, Mme Merle has become a cosmopolitan expatriate whose
national identity is difficult to guess.
She is endowed with many qualities that make her the embodiment of the ‘perfect’ lady, the ‘Angel
in the House’ the women of the time were urged to become. She never gets bored, as she occupies her
time doing all kinds of activities that are mostly circumscribed to the domestic sphere: “When Mme
Merle was neither writing, nor painting, nor touching the piano, she was usually employed upon
wonderful tasks of rich embroidery…” (James, 2011: 245). When not engaged in such activities, she
would read, walk, play cards or talk with her friends. Moreover, she is an extremely pleasant and
knowledgeable travel companion for Isabel in the course of her travels. She is endowed with so many
qualities that, in the end she looks too good to be true. This is in fact what Ralph implies when saying
about Mme Merle that “[s]he’s too good, too kind, too clever, too learned, too accomplished, too
everything. She’s too complete, in a word” (James, 2011: 316).Isabel admires Mme Merle a lot for the
qualities she displays - “she was charming, sympathetic, intelligent, cultivated…she was rare, superior
and preeminent” (James, 2011: 241); for Lydia Touchett, Serena Merle is a good friend and, according
to her son, Ralph, she is also “the person in the world whom my mother very much admires” (James, 2011: 228). The only character that sees through the masque of Mme Merle’s positive face1 (Brown & Levinson, 1987) and speaks up her mind in a direct, though rather blunt manner in the first part of the novel is Countess Gemini, Gilbert Osmond’s sister: “You’re capable of anything, you and Osmond (…) together you’re dangerous – like some chemical combination (James, 2011: 336).
Serena Merle’s gender identity is completed through her three motherhood hypostases: biological, denied and surrogate mother (Brown: 1996). She is Pansy Osmond’s biological mother, but, due to social conventions, she cannot disclose this relationship to her own daughter because at the time Pansy was conceived, both she and Gilbert Osmond, Pansy’s father, were married to other partners. The identity of the apparent ‘perfect’ lady is thus reconstructed and redefined by the Victorian melodrama stereotype of the ‘woman with a past.’ In order to conceal her past love affair, Mme Merle has to disguise her maternal feelings; she becomes a denied mother and chooses the next best role – that of a family friend – which gives her the possibility to see her daughter whenever she wants without raising suspicions. She is constrained to find a substitute or surrogate well-to-do mother for her own daughter. When Isabel receives a substantial inheritance from Ralph’s father, Serena Merle decides that Isabel is the best option for a substitute mother figure. As a result, she starts manipulating both Isabel and her own former lover, Gilbert Osmond into marrying each other. In order to ensure her biological daughter a proper dowry so that she might marry into nobility and improve her social position, Serena Merle ‘sells’ Isabel, her surrogate daughter into marriage, perpetuating thus the main role of a mother in the Victorian epoch, i.e. that of finding a proper husband for her daughter. As Brown points out, by trying to sell her surrogate and later on her biological daughter into the institution of marriage, she acknowledges that “female survival in the (male)/public/social realm beyond the borders of the (domestic-based) mother-daughter relationship depends on the combination of men, money, and marriage” (Brown, 1996: 48).
It is only in the latter half of the novel that Isabel becomes aware of Mme Merle’s real self. When Serena Merle comes to her to find out the reason that brought about the failure of the marriage arrangement between Lord Warburton and Pansy, Isabel realises that the ties between her husband and Mme Merle go far beyond mere friendship. The questions she asks repeatedly “Who are you – what are you? (…) What have you to do with my husband?” (James, 2011: 634) are meant to underline her bitter awareness of the gap between appearance and reality, between her perception of Mme Merle’s identity (her positive face) and her real personal identity. The harsh, but direct answer given by her interlocutor – “Everything” (James, 2011: 635) – completes the deconstruction of Madame Merle’s fake socialidentity and the disclosure of her real self. The masque has been ripped off.
In James’ novel
Isabel Archer, the heroineof the book. Out of these characters, the article has focused on three female
travellers – Henrietta Stackpole, Lydia Touchett, and Serena Merle – who try to break the boundaries
that separate women from men, the female private sphere from the male public sphere. The study has
delineated the multiple shifts in their gender and cultural identity, with a view to delineate the
continuous reconstruction of their private and social self and point out their complexity.
- Brown, M. A. (1996). Modes of Female Social Existence and Adherence in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. Paper 7079. Iowa State University.
- Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Cunningham, H. (1980). The Leisure in the Industrial Revolution 1780-1880. London: Croom Helm.
- Harman, B. L. (1988). In Promiscuous Company: Female Public Appearance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Victorian Studies, 31(3), pp. 351-374.
- James, H. (2011). The Portrait of a Lady. London: Harper Collins Publishers.
- Kemaloğlu, A. B. (n.d.). Travelling and Gender: The Portrait of a Lady, pp. 103-120, http://www.sbed.mu.edu.tr/index.php/asd/article/ Showalter, E., A. (1977). Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronté to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton UP.
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18 December 2019
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Iftimie, N. M. (2019). Travelling Women: The Reconstruction of Self and Gender Roles in The Portrait of a Lady. In A. Sandu, T. Ciulei, & A. Frunza (Eds.), Logos Universality Mentality Education Novelty, vol 15. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 474-481). Future Academy. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2016.09.61